NOTRE DAME, Ind. - Notre Dame and Oklahoma have not met often over the years, but when two of the biggest names in college football do meet it is generally pretty special. When the Fighting Irish host the Sooners this Saturday it will be no different.
"It is a big game for us," Irish wide receiver T.J. Jones said of Saturday's clash after Wednesday's practice. "I mean it's Notre Dame - Oklahoma. Not much has to be said about what's at stake this Saturday."
The two storied programs met fairly regularly in the 1950s and '60s. They squared-off four times in each of those decades, but did not play again until the Sooners visited in South Bend in 1999. Their next meeting was not until last year in Norman - Notre Dame's first visit to OU since 1966. The uniqueness of a Notre Dame - Oklahoma football game kind of gives this weekend's game a different feel.
"A different level maybe of, I don't want to say excitement," Jones said. "But kind of it's not someone you play every year. It's not a known rivalry for Notre Dame. It's not a known game that people like myself who have been here for four years have played every year. This is our second time playing them and there's still that kind of newness and that's where the excitement comes from."
While Jones senses a different feel for this week's game, quarterback Tommy Rees has a different take.
"Oklahoma's always had a good tradition of being a great program and good players," said Rees. "We've got to prepare for another challenge. They (have) some good guys on defense that can run and do some different things, but for us it starts with our preparation and it starts with having another good day tomorrow (at practice)."
The Sooners (3-0) enter this week's game ranked as high as No. 12 in this week's national polls. That makes them the highest ranked team the Irish have faced this season, but safety Matthias Farley says that does not make the stakes any bigger for ND.
"Every week is our biggest game," said Farley. "So it doesn't matter if there's a number in front of their name before we play them or not. It's the same preparation week-in and week-out. (We are) not looking too far ahead or losing (our) focus just because it's a big team. You still have to prepare the same way."
Rees concurs with Farley's sentiment.
"We're not too much focused on statement games and all that," said Rees. "For us, we've just got to go out there and execute and find a way to win a football game."
For the Irish to be successful on Saturday they will have to contend defensively with OU quarterback Blake Bell. The redshirt junior saw redshirt freshman Trevor Knight win the nod behind center coming out of training camp, but Bell passed for 413 yards and four touchdowns two weeks ago in his first career start after rushing for 24 touchdowns as OU's short-yardage QB the previous two seasons.
"We definitely respect all of his abilities," Grace said of Bell. "You get the name Belldozer for a reason. We're ready for all the dynamics - him passing it (and) running it. We're just going to cover all of our bases come Saturday."
The 6-foot-6, 255-pound quarterback has Tim Tebow-like mobility and strength. The Irish have faced four mobile quarterbacks already this season, but Bell brings his own set of challenges to defend.
"It's really just coming to balance," freshman outside linebacker Jaylon Smith said of the challenge of bringing down a tank like Bell. "Making that transition from speed to power (is) going to be a challenge."
"It's pretty much the same principles (in tackling)," he continued. "Obviously you have to have a different mindset with a 255-pound guy, but that's how we practice as linebackers."
Oklahoma's defense brings its own unique style as well. The Sooners play a 3-3-5 scheme, in large part due to the spread offenses they face in the Big 12.
"They're quick," Irish right guard Christian Lombard said of the OU defense. They're physical and they're fundamentally sound. We have to be on our game in that regard with a different defense. We haven't seen three-down (linemen) this whole season, but going against our defense all summer is a benefit, so we'll be ready for it."
"Our defense plays three-down (linemen) too," center Nick Martin chimed. "So going against Louis Nix and our defense helps us out. It's not completely foreign to me, so I've seen it before."
After playing three B1G teams and Temple to open the first month of the season, Jones says he expects to see a completely different kind of player lined-up across from him this Saturday.
"They're very athletic," Jones said of the Sooners. "(They are) without a doubt the most athletic team that we'll play up to date. They can run. They're fast and strong. Every position can run."
Every player takes his own motivation into every game and Stanley's approach this Saturday will be the same one the tackle has every week.
"I'm approaching every game the same way as if it were my last game," said Stanley. "I think I'm approaching every game like it's my last, so I think that's the way to approach it."